The Incident Report is in fact 144 Incident Reports (in a 196-page book) from the Allan Gardens branch of the Toronto Public Library. Allan Gardens (and its well-known conservatory, which does have a role in the book) is located in a marginal part of downtown Toronto and is home to some pretty marginal people. Each time there is an incident at the library, the librarian in charge (Miriam Gordon, age 35, formerly a “Clerical” but recently upgraded to “Public Service Assistant”) is required to fill out and file a report — Baillie helpfully provides a copy of the actual form at the front of the book, although she wisely doesn’t adhere to it. Here are a couple of samples:
Incident Report 4
This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her for the gift.
Incident Report 11
At 12:30 this afternoon, a female patron, grey-haired and well-dressed, entered the library, pushing a male patron, equally respectable, in his wheelchair. She took him right up to the shelves. He pointed to the books he wanted. She lifted down the volumes, filled the cloth sack that hung from the back of his chair, then wheeled both him and his selection over to the circulation desk.
There the man and the woman switched places, the man getting out of his wheelchair. She sat down. He unloaded the sack of books, checked them out, packed them in again and wheeled her through the exit, seemingly without effort. As he pushed, she hummed a little tune of contentment.
None of these perpetrators ever acquire a real name in the book, but many have “librarian” names — Sheep Woman, Suitcase Man, Wire Stripper Man, Morality Man, to name just a few. A number are library regulars and appear more than once, many show up only for one incident.
Martha Baillie knows whereof she writes — a Toronto native, she has worked part-time in that city’s public library system for more than 20 years. She has also published three previous novels (none of which I have read) and her poems have appeared in numerous Canadian literary publications. She not only has a way with words, she is a perceptive observer.
It is at this point that I should declare a personal conflict of interest regarding this novel. For the first 14 years of my journalism career, The Calgary Herald was located in the centre of downtown Calgary (only three blocks from the library, as it happens). Like the library, the newspaper was a magnet for the “lost souls” that wander around ever urban centre and they would often drop by the newsroom to try to generate interest in their story — some regularly, others occasionally, some only once. Many were obviously not well and others were more than annoying, but some were out-and-out interesting. Baillie includes examples of each kind.
The conceit of an actual incident report cannot be maintained for the whole book and the author does not attempt it. While these oddball characters continue to show up throughout the novel, Baillie uses other reports to develop and ruminate on a set of story lines that supply a structure for the book.
The most interesting is the mysterious person who thinks he is Rigoletto (from the opera) and that Miriam is his daughter, Gilda. For those who don’t know the opera, Rigoletto is tricked into kidnapping Gilda for the lascivious Duke, whom she does already know and loves. Rigoletto hires a murderer to kill the Duke, Gilda gets wind of the plot and inserts herself in the Duke’s place. As Rigoletto is unwrapping her body to celebrate his revenge, the Duke can be heard in the background singing “la donna e mobile”.
The library Rigoletto never reveals himself but does leave a number of notes and opera scores around the facility for discovery. While Miriam is initially fearful for herself and appropriate authorities are alerted, she eventually realizes that whoever Rigoletto is he views himself as her protector from unseen forces that apparently threaten her. It is no spoiler to say that she never does discover who the real person is.
Less successful is the story line of Miriam’s affair with Janko, a refugee Slovenian fresco painter now driving taxi while searching for better opportunities — again, every city has similar versions of taxi drivers. Despite having her heart broken at age 18 and swearing to never fall in love again, they become lovers. In a book where the absurd is normal, I’m afraid the affair did stretch the envelope perhaps just a bit too much.
There are a couple of other continuing story lines — staff relations at the branch, Miriam’s childhood history — that help to put substance to the book and Miriam’s personal story. More than anything else, however, it consists of 144 vignettes that through location and personality establish an intriguing and interesting picture of what happens at a community institution. Strange as some of the incidents are, there is a consistent air of realism to the whole project.
Miriam certainly becomes a real person:
Incdent Report 5
In the library workroom, a schedule hangs from two clips. As always, the day has been divided into compartments, as if it were a train about to set out on a well-planned voyage along shining rails. My initials have been pencilled into many of the little boxes that correspond to each hour between 9 AM and 8:30 PM. We, the staff, don’t always greet the public with enthusiasm. We don’t feel, every one of us without fail, that we are travelling out, embarked upon an adventure, and yet there we are, inscibed in our little boxes, as if the day were pulled by a solid locomotive.
Every morning in the warmth of my bed, as I surface from sleep, fear — small as a cherry stone, it cracks open behind my breastbone. I don’t want the fruit. With each quick breath the fear grows, a rustling of leaves in the cavity of my chest. But soon I’ve washed, dressed, drunk a cup of tea, eaten a piece of toast, and am on my way to work, riding my bicycle in the prescribed direction.
It is hard to say how much my recent Prize reading influenced my reaction to this book (both Booker and Giller have a lot of wordy traditional historical novels this year). I was delighted to see an author take risks and deliver on them — while she was not totally successful the result was more than good enough for me. And while I would be surprised to see this book winning the Giller, I would love to see it on the shortlist. I have a feeling the Martha Baillie would put her $5,000 shortlist prize to very good use.